I was flitting around the internet the other day, looking up recipes for apple butter, when I came across a conversational thread that started with the question, “What is the point of apple butter?” This made me laugh out loud, just thinking about the person out there who is so desperate to understand why this apple-based condiment even exists. One may as well ask, “What is the point of jam?” “What is the point of cheesecake?” or “What is the point of a seven-layer German chocolate cake with extra coconut and pecans?” They exist because they are scrumptious and they need no other reason.
A better question might be, “What’s the difference between apple jam and apple butter?” It comes down to texture and cooking time. Apple jam may have a few chunks in it, while apple butter is smooth as, well, butter. But apple butter is also different from apple jam (or applesauce, for that matter) in that it’s cooked for much longer, allowing the flavors of apples to intensify to peak deliciousness. The natural sugars in the apples slowly caramelize as the apple butter turns a deep brown. And here’s another thing I learned: Cooked apples release extra pectin, which is good for our gut microbiome. So that makes apple butter tasty and nutritional, especially if you ignore the added sugar.
Notwithstanding the tastes of our anonymous internet questioner, humans have been enjoying apple butter for a long, long time. Apple butter originated in medieval times as an especially yummy way to preserve apples. So I guess its “point” is to give us a wonderful way to enjoy apple flavor when apples are not in season, although for the modern consumer, fresh apples are always in season. (Lucky us! What would we do without versatile, crunchable, munchable apples?)
Another marvelous fruit that ripens in September is figs. You may see them in pint boxes at your local grocery store, purple-black gems shaped like fat teardrops, a modest disguise for their flaming pink, potently sweet interiors. If you’re like me, you buy as many as you can reasonably afford and then eat half of them in the car on the way home. (But maybe you’re not as passionately fond of figs as I am.) The thing about figs is that they must be consumed at exactly the right moment, when they’re soft but not too soft, sweet but not cloying, dark pink inside but not brown. Once fresh figs have turned the corner to mushy, what can you do with them except throw them out?
You can create culinary magic with them, that’s what! Overripe figs are perfect for jam. They pair so well with all kinds of fruits, especially apples, which retain their tart edge even after cooking. The figs’ natural sweetness also means that you can make apple butter with a fraction of the sugar or no sugar at all, if that’s your preference.
This recipe for fig apple butter uses only ¼ cup brown sugar. Of course, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you can increase the sugar, but remember that as the apple butter cooks it becomes sweeter as liquid evaporates. The other advantage to this recipe is it makes just four 8-ounce jars, so you won’t have to cram two dozen jars of apple butter into your fridge or freezer — unless you want to, and it that case you can double or triple the recipe.
Start with 1 pound of figs, six apples and a food processor or blender. The figs should be very soft indeed. It’s fine if they’re brown and squishy inside (but be sure to discard any moldy ones, for the sake of your delicate digestive system). Remove the hard stems and put the whole figs in the blender. Next, core and finely dice six apples. Don’t bother peeling them because everything will be blended together anyway. By the time the apple butter is done cooking, the peels will be undetectable. Blend everything on high until the mixture is very, very smooth, two or three minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water as necessary to ease the blending process but be conservative; apples are already juicy enough and you want your apple butter to be nice and thick.
A note on blending apple butter: Some recipes call for apple butter to be blended after cooking, while others say to blend it after six or eight hours of cooking before returning it to the pan to cook for another two or three hours. This may result in a more velvety texture but it’s annoying to deal with the hot apple butter, so I blend everything at the beginning. It’s a “you say tomato, I say tomato” situation and you should do things however you like.
Pour the fig-apple mixture into a medium saucepan and add ¼ cup loosely packed brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, a scant ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon nutmeg, ½ teaspoon allspice and 1 tablespoon vanilla. (Don’t balk at the salt; it won’t be noticeable in the final product but it will enhance the flavor.) Cover the pan and set it to simmer on the lowest setting. Let it go for eight hours but stay nearby to give it an occasional stir, once or twice every hour, to keep it from burning on the bottom. You can let it go for up to 10 hours for an even thicker fig apple butter but you have to keep a closer eye on it because the thicker it gets, the more easily it burns.
While the jam is still piping hot, ladle it into four clean, 8-ounce, freezer-safe Mason jars and screw the lids on tight. The jars don’t need to be sterilized as they do with pressure-canned jam. Just clean them in the dishwasher with a high heat-drying cycle or wash them by hand in hot water. The important thing is that both the jars and the jam should be hot. Leave a half-inch of space at the top of each jar to allow for expansion during freezing. The fig apple butter will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month or in the freezer for up to a year.
There are so many ways to enjoy fig apple butter, how can I list them all in this small space? It can be spread on pancakes or waffles, used as a topping for ice cream or as a sweet counterpoint on a ham-and-cheddar sandwich, or stirred into oatmeal on chilly autumn mornings. You might even try making yourself a warming mug of tea with a tablespoon of fig apple butter stirred in for a sweet, spicy treat. But my favorite way to eat fig apple butter is slathered on a thick slice of toast, with the jar nearby in case I need to slather on even more. Then I grab my cellphone and type into the search bar, “What is the point of cleaning up the kitchen when it will just get dirty again in half an hour?”
Fig Apple Butter
1 pound of fresh, extremely ripe figs, stems removed
6 apples, cored and diced but not peeled
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon vanilla
Water as needed
Put figs and apples in blender or food processor and blend on high until very smooth, adding 1/2 cup of water as necessary to ease the blending. Pour into medium saucepan. Add sugar, spices and vanilla. Simmer on lowest setting, covered, for up to 8 hours, stirring every hour to avoid burning. While still piping hot, ladle into four clean 8-ounce jars, leaving a half-inch at the top to allow for expansion. Cool until lids pop then refrigerate for up to one month or freeze for up to a year. Makes four jars. Serve on toast, mix into oatmeal or smoothies or use as a topping for ice cream.